August 14, 2019 | News | No Comments
For a quick lesson in how political insults are born, look no further than Fredo. On Monday night, the name was trending on Twitter, thanks to a viral video showing an altercation between the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and a guy at a bar in Shelter Island, New York. The man had called Cuomo “Fredo,” having apparently picked up the nickname from “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” “Punk-ass bitches from the right call me Fredo,” Cuomo retorts, getting in the man’s grill. “My name is Chris Cuomo. I’m an anchor on CNN. Fredo is from ‘The Godfather.’ He was the weak brother.” Cuomo goes on, “They’re using it as an Italian aspersion. Any of you Italian? Are you Italian? It’s a fucking insult to your people. It’s an insult to your people. It’s like the N-word for us. Is that a cool fucking thing?” The man stammers, claiming that he thought it was Cuomo’s actual name, and Cuomo explains, “You call me Fredo, it’s like I call you ‘punk bitch.’ You like that?”
Cuomo’s detractors were soon posting videos of CNN commentators using “Fredo” to diss Representative Devin Nunes and Donald Trump, Jr., as proof of Cuomo’s hypocrisy. Sean Hannity offered an unlikely defense, saying that Cuomo “has zero to apologize for.” CNN backed up Cuomo, too, stating that he had been “verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur,” which prompted Trump, Jr., to call Cuomo’s self-justification an “excuse just as fake as his news.” Conservatives gleefully decried the false equivalency between “Fredo” and the N-word. The gun-rights advocate Dana Loesch tweeted, “Is Fredo a pejorative? Yes. It refers to the dumbest Corleone. Is it racist? No. . . . This is all so mind-numbingly idiotic.” Just when you thought things couldn’t get more mind-numbingly idiotic, the President of the United States, aroused on Tuesday morning by the smell of a fresh taunt, weighed in. “I thought Chris was Fredo also,” he tweeted. “The truth hurts.”
Political metaphor tends to flatten all cultural references. Kabuki theatre, a rich and venerable art form dating back to seventeenth-century Japan, has become Washington speak for “empty spectacle.” “Groundhog Day,” the genius existential Bill Murray comedy, is code for “mindless repetition.” It’s dismaying to see Fredo Corleone, brilliantly played by John Cazale in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II,” reduced to a political weapon, deployed in a disingenuous spat over what constitutes racist hate speech. Trump, Jr., was likely embracing the chance to fling the nickname at someone else and make it stick, having been dubbed the Fredo of the Trump family since his father rose to political power. (For my money, I get more of a Fredo vibe from Eric Trump. Don, Jr., is more like the hot-headed Sonny, with Ivanka as the stealthy, power-hungry Michael, and Tiffany as Connie, the little sister who mostly sits on the sidelines.)
The implication of calling someone Fredo, like that of the alt-right insult “cuck,” is of weakness, specifically a failure to live up to the masculine ideal. But Fredo is more of a complex, tragic figure than political mudslinging would allow. In Mario Puzo’s original novel, Vito Corleone’s second son is described as “a child every Italian prayed to the saints for. Dutiful, loyal, always at the service of his father, living with his parents at age thirty. He was short and burly, not handsome but with the same Cupid head of the family, the curly helmet of hair over the round face and sensual bow-shaped lips.” Cazale, whom Francis Ford Coppola and his casting director, Fred Roos, spotted in the Off Broadway play “Line,” looked nothing like that: he was drawn out and pale, with a forehead notably lacking in curls. And yet he fit the character perfectly. Cazale, one of the great (and undersung) character actors of the nineteen-seventies, excelled at showing weakness, cowardice, and pettiness. He was usually cast alongside a more robust leading man, whether it be Al Pacino (in the “Godfather” movies and “Dog Day Afternoon”), Gene Hackman (in Coppola’s “The Conversation”), or Robert De Niro (in “The Deer Hunter”). But he never reduced his characters to their most mockable flaws, infusing his performances with understated humor, sweetness, and melancholy. Think of him as the slow-witted accomplice to Pacino’s bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon.” When Pacino asks him if there’s any special country he wants to escape to, Cazale whispers, “Wyoming.” The line—both funny and heartbreakingly innocent—was Cazale’s ad lib.
Coppola had a soft spot for Fredo, who reminded him of his less accomplished uncles. “I think Italians that come from that little-town mentality are very hard on their own, and very cruel unto those who don’t quite cut the mustard at the same level that the star brothers or the star uncles do,” the director once said. In “The Godfather,” Cazale gave Fredo that sense of well-meaning haplessness, as when he fails to protect his father from an assassination attempt at the market. The second “Godfather” film brought Fredo into the foreground (not his natural place in the family portrait) and deepened him. Fredo’s involvement in a bungled attempt on Michael’s life (“I know it was you”), which leads Michael to succumb to his darkest instincts and commit fratricide, is at the movie’s tragic core, and it gives Cazale the most beautifully acted scenes of his career. The most iconic is the brothers’ conversation in the boathouse, when Fredo pitifully pleads for respect: “Send Fredo off to do this. Send Fredo off to do that. Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse night club somewhere. . . . I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says!” Cazale delivers this feckless rant with wide-eyed rage and self-pity, flopping up and down in his lounge chair like a beached guppy.
But my favorite moment comes just before he’s whacked, as he sits with his young nephew Anthony by the lake with their fishing gear. Fredo recalls the time when he was a kid and went fishing with his father and brothers, and he was the only one to catch a fish—the secret, he tells Anthony, is to say a Hail Mary every time you put your line down. It’s probably the only time Fredo ever outshone his brothers, and you get the sense that he would have led a perfectly content life if he’d been born into a clan of, say, mild-mannered dentists. Fredo’s death is as wrenching as it is only because we care so deeply about him—he’s pathetic, sure, but he has reserves of humanity that he never got to express, holding himself to an impossible yardstick of power and violence when all he wanted to do was go fishing.
Like the character he became famous for, Cazale had a knack for getting passed over. He made only five films, but each was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Cazale never got a nomination. He died, from cancer, in 1978, at the age of forty-two, with his girlfriend, Meryl Streep, at his bedside. If there’s any solace in seeing Fredo become a political slingshot ball, it’s that Cazale’s portrayal is indelible enough to merit the attention. More than four decades later, Fredo’s still not getting any respect, but at least he’s getting noticed.